Germantown Science and Art Club host Helen McMahon introduces Charles McMahon, artistic director of the Lantern Theater and director of “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” at the Lantern Theater . He spoke on the decision-making process in interpreting this fascinating and seldom performed work by Bertold Brecht.

by Joel Levinson

Many years before the Science and Art Club of Germantown was founded, Benjamin Franklin and some male friends (printers, surveyors, a cabinetmaker, a clerk and a bartender) formed the Junto in 1727. The group was also known as the Leather Apron Club and met every Friday evening with a spirit of inquiry and for the goal of mutual improvement. They debated morals, politics and natural philosophy, now known as science. The discussions were organized around topics that Franklin (then 21 years old) would propose. From this group sprang the American Philosophical Society, still headquartered in Philadelphia.

Franklin was influenced by two organizations that preceded his. One was the English group called the Dry Club that included in the 1690s the philosopher John Locke. The other group, or more precisely, collection of groups, was formed in Massachusetts by Cotton Mather, who was a Puritan minister, pamphleteer and scientist involved in hybridization and his promotion of inoculation (variolation for disease prevention), but also for his involvement in the Salem witch trials. Mather’s neighborhood societies were individually composed of a dozen married couples who would meet for prayer and to support neighbors in need, avoid oppression, and take action to promote the public good.

Cut from that same cloth of scientific debate and philosophical discussion is the Science and Art Club of Germantown, a long-lived and lively local group with about 60 active members. This 2019-2020 program year the Club is celebrating its 140th anniversary. The Club was named for the “Germantownship,” a designation which at the time encompassed Germantown, Mount Airy, and Chestnut Hill. And the activities of the Club still occur mainly in Northwest Philadelphia.

The Science and Art Club was formed in 1879, when there were only 38 states in the Union. Eight young men from the Germantown area met in the home-laboratory of Henry Carvill Lewis to consider forming a science club. Lewis was a 25-year old geologist who had studied at the University of Pennsylvania and went on to become a professor at Haverford College.

Back then, science was “a subject much in the minds of the day, and much neglected in many a school.” For that reason, an earlier group called the Germantown Scientific Society had been formed but just as quickly died out. Lewis’s new science group, however, soon adopted rules, planned for a membership of 25 and changed the name to Science and Art Club. The first formal meeting was held at the home of Charles W. Chandler on Feb. 5, 1880. The Rev. H. E. McCook, a Presbyterian minister and naturalist who studied ants and spiders spoke on that occasion on “The Honey Ant and the Garden of the Gods.”

Of the original 18 members, two were physicians, three were ministers and one was a poet/playwright. The members included a noted horticulturalist who was a vice president of the Academy of Natural Sciences, and Reuben Haines, of the family that built Wyck, the historic house on Germantown Avenue. A member who joined the following year was the landscape and seascape painter William Trost Richards whose works hang in many top-notch museums around the country including our own Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In 1881, membership in the Club expanded but was limited to 50 men who met twice a month. It was agreed that those in attendance need not dress in evening attire such as a white waistcoat and black tailcoat and trousers; perhaps this was an original rule, but we can be certain today that they did not gather in jeans and T-shirts, which is usually the summer attire for SpaceGroup meetings. Refreshments were limited to ice cream, coffee, chocolate, tea, lemonade, sandwiches and cake.

Each member acted as host in turn and decided the subject of his meeting, which could be art, literature, music, science, national and world affairs and other matters of general interest. Sometimes the host would run the meeting but usually the host provided a specialist in some field of interest. Wives were always invited. And from very early (early 1900s), women also gave presentations. Fortunately, times have changed. In 1984, full membership of women was granted and obviously has remained in place.

In the early days of the club, the majority of meetings were held in the homes of the members. However, as membership increased, a convenient private gathering place in Germantown was used. William Woods, who wrote the 75th anniversary account, goes on to say that members could invite friends to bring in new faces and the meetings were followed by a “delightful social hour … with light refreshments, when old friends mingle, and new friendships are formed.” This is still true today.

When the Science and Art Club of Germantown was being formed, the principle of the conservation of energy was just being discovered, the Edison Electric Company was just being formed, saccharin was accidentally discovered, and Brahms’ Concerto in D had its first performance in Leipzig. Other international developments included the formation of an organization to build the Panama Canal, and the French physicist, mathematician and natural philosopher PierreSimon Laplace suggested that the solar system formed from the condensation of nebulae. Writers of note during this period were Longfellow, Tennyson, Emerson and Whitman. Robert Frost actually made a presentation to the Club in the second decade of the 20th century.

In 1980, subjects discussed included medicine, biography, education, sociology, birds, theater, law, astronomy, and photography. Speakers included presidents of Haverford and Swarthmore colleges, Admiral Peary (discoverer of the North Pole), and W. Wilson Goode, the Mayor of Philadelphia. Some well-known members included: Samuel Chew, Thomas P. Cope Jr., Edward Stotesbury, Justus Strawbridge, Samuel Bodine, Morris L. Cooke and C. Cresson Wistar.

Today, the Club holds seven meetings annually, one a month, with no meetings in the summer or in December. Also, most meetings occur in Germantown, Mount Airy, or Chestnut Hill. Guest speakers during the year included Penn archeology professor C. Brian Rose, Quintessence Theater Artistic Director Alex Burns, and Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Director of Engagement Juday Rhoads.

I also gave a talk on the topic of diagonality Though I have researched the topic for a half century, I had never made a formal presentation on the subject. Speaking to the Club and interested visitors required that I organize my thinking for a one-hour-plus talk and narrow the number of images. There were technical and staging challenges associated with my talk that I was not prepared for. But the presentation was, for me, a great way to break the ice and prepare for more and better presentations in the future. Naturally, I was delighted when more than 70 people came out to learn about a topic that was totally new to them.

My experience since joining the Science and Art Club of Germantown has been very positive. In addition to meeting people from different walks of life, the presentations have widened my understanding of life in many realms. One can get stuck in a frame of reference of one’s own particular interests, but the Science and Art Club of Germantown causes one to embrace, for at least an evening, topics that are far afield from what one encounters on an everyday basis. Those with an interest in attending a session can find more information online.